How does a company that helps others market their brands market itself?
This is a question creative agencies grapple with. And it’s not an easy question to answer.
There is a perennial struggle between the business of being creative, and well, business. What might be good for your creative brand might not bring in business (and vice versa).
That said, there are solutions to market your creative agency, some conventional, some radical.
In this post, I’ll share some of these unconventional strategies and tactics to market your creative agency.
Use Transparency as a Marketing Hook
There was a time when businesses could afford to corral behind long forms and opaque facades.
That time is long gone, thanks to the internet.
Your customers are actively seeking more details about your business. They want to know how much your service costs, how long it takes and what kind of reviews it has.
And they want this information right now, not behind a form or a phone call.
There are two ways to deal with these customers:
- Hide everything behind a form and make customers work for the information.
- Put everything front and center and practice complete transparency.
As a growing number of businesses are beginning to realize, the latter option is actually great for business, and for creative agency marketing.
As Paul Gillin notes in The New Influencers,
The gist is that in the age of social media, your customers are going to eventually figure out your secrets anyway. So why not cut their hunt short and share them yourself?
As a general rule, the more complex and obscure a business’ offering, the more it will benefit from transparency.
Creative agencies fit the bill perfectly.
Because the creative process is often shrouded in mystery and because creative agencies often price their services on ad-hoc basis, outsiders looking in can get intimidated.
A more transparent approach solves this problem and helps with attracting clients and recruiting great people.
Further, being transparent can help differentiate your offerings from more traditional competitors. This can be a powerful brand signal when used right.
Here are four ways you can adopt transparency:
1. Transparency in Pricing
Sharing your rates publicly for selected services and set you apart from competitors with more opaque pricing. You can have a separate private rate for more customized solutions.
For example, WebPageFX has detailed rates for all its services. For creative services, it even shares a pricing calculator.
2. Transparency in Process
Share how you work, what tools you use and how you get results. This will give prospective clients greater confidence in your capabilities. With creative work, this can also give clients insight into why you charge what you charge.
Case studies are a great place to share your process. For example, The Charles shares detailed explanations of its process in all its case studies.
3. Transparency in Performance
Instead of sharing subjective data (“increased quality of leads”), share hard numbers about your work and its impact. Tell prospective clients exactly what kind of results they can expect, and when.
For example, SiegeMedia shares exact performance figures in its case studies:
4. Transparency in Payroll
A final, but more difficult form of transparency is transparency in payroll. This is where you share exact salaries for all your staff (including the CEO).
This can be a powerful recruiting tool. If prospective applicants know exactly what they’ll get paid and why, they’ll be more likely to apply.
Although it’s not an agency, Buffer has done this to great effect. It shares salaries for all 65 employees and the formula it used to get to these figures.
After sharing salaries publicly, Buffer received more than twice as many resumes as it normally does.
This isn’t always possible to do in an agency setting, of course. But at the very least, try to be transparent in your salary ranges or compensation model in job postings.
Turn Branding Events into Lead-Generation Opportunities
As an agency owner, your brand is critical for business. This is what differentiates you from your competitors.
To build this brand, you undertake a number of branding-related activities - social media, speaking gigs, live events, etc.
But your brand is just that - a brand. There is no hard monetary value attached to it, or to the activities that help you build it.
With a few simple tweaks, however, you can turn brand-building activities into lead-generation opportunities.
I’ll share some ideas below:
1. Turn Social Media Followers Into Leads
Social media is a powerful branding tool, especially all visual-heavy networks such as Instagram and Snapchat.
Usually, you’d use social media to showcase your work and work culture. You’ll likely just link to your website homepage directly since the objective is branding, not lead-generation.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
While sticking a lead-gen form isn’t always possible (or desirable) on a social media page, you can find some ways to capture leads.
One way to do this is to link to content which, in turn, links to an email collection form.
For example, IDEO links to its blog posts on its Instagram page. When visitors land on the post, they see a prominent email subscription form.
This way, IDEO is able to capture emails from its Instagram account without the hard-sell of a conventional lead-gen form.
WolffOlins takes a slightly less overt approach. It links to its latest report in its Instagram bio.
This report has a prominent “Join In” link which directs them to an email account. This can later be mined for links.
Try adopting such workarounds on your social media following. Don’t just link to the homepage. Instead, link to expanded content and use that to pitch your products/services.
2. Turn Event Attendees Into Leads
You’re speaking at an event, hosting a meetup, or maybe just attending a conference.
In each of these cases, your primary goal is to grow your agency’s brand. Share your vision, work and results with people. You might hope to get some leads, but it’s not a priority.
Besides, who has time to fill out forms (paper or online) at busy events?
There are some workarounds that aren’t so overt.
If you’re speaking at an event, you can close the talk by offering free downloadable content in exchange for emails. Use a tool like TalkBook to make this process easier.
Alternatively, get people to sign-up via text messaging. Use a tool like JoinByText and ask people to SMS you a chosen keyword to join your email list. You can even print this keyword on your business card.
This is a much less “in your face” tactic to turn event attendees into leads.
Use Side Project Marketing
Creating products to capture leads is old hat as far as agency marketing goes. But in the last few years, this tactic has gone truly mainstream with agencies creating “side projects” to market their main business.
So much so that marketers are calling it the “new king” of marketing.
But first - what exactly is side project marketing?
This is where you create a small, standalone product that ties into your core offering. The product usually fulfills a niche need and has a built-in referral mechanism that helps it grow on its own.
A perfect example of a successful side project is Unsplash.
Three years later, Unsplash has grown so large that it is now operated as a standalone company with millions of users.
At the same time, it helped Crew land thousands of referrals and hundreds of customers.
The best part? It did this without any hard selling.
As Crew’s founder Mikael Cho says:
For a side project to be successful, it should have two components:
- It should solve a niche problem, and
- The niche problem should be related to your business
The latter is particularly important from a marketing point of view. You’re essentially piggybacking on the side project to sell your main product. You want to be able to market your side project on the same channels as where your primary product’s audience hangs out.
In the case of Unsplash, the product solved a niche need: giving designers and developers access to high quality imagery for free.
This gave Crew a “lateral” entry into community of designers/developers.
Also, have a way to somehow capture emails from your side project. This isn’t always necessary but it will make your projects 10x more effective.
Keep this in mind and you’ll see great results from your side projects.
Before I jump to the next section, I’ll share some examples of successful side project use cases.
1. Improve a Common Process
Find something that people in your industry commonly do, then find a way to do it faster. Essentially, you’re creating a tool to improve a workflow.
For example, SEOs often target outdated content in hopes of scoring a backlink. Finding this content often requires creating complex Google queries.
So Greenlane Marketing came up with an “Outdated Content Finder” tool that automated the process, saving SEOs hours:
2. Curate Resources
The more complex a field, the more resources, ideas and approaches it has. A centralized website/app that curates the best of these resources can be an invaluable tool.
For example, the Web Field Manual curates the web’s best design resources.
3. Showcase Capabilities
Sometimes, the best side projects don’t really solve a problem. Instead, they simply showcase what you can do.
Creative agencies often gravitate towards such projects since they give them a chance to flex the agency’s creative muscles.
The result? Traffic, and from that traffic, leads.
Community - building one or joining one - is often ignored by agencies. The reason given is often the same - investing in communities doesn’t yield results, at least not immediately.
For long-term impact, however, embracing community can be a powerful marketing tactic.
Communities help you in three ways:
- They help passively promote your brand.
- They act as source for talent.
- They act as a source of referrals.
A community is a great example of “value-focused” marketing. The community acts as a conduit for your agency’s values. The ideas and beliefs you embrace within the community will have a lasting impact on your brand.
A community may be informal or formal. A “formal” community would be, say, the forum associated with an event. An “informal” community might be the community that comes together on a Reddit subreddit or a Twitter hashtag.
For maximum impact, embrace both formal and informal communities in your creative agency marketing strategy.
Contribute to Niche Communities
The easiest way to be a part of a community is to contribute to one. Whatever content you contribute to the community will become associated with your brand. If you’re helpful and informative, community members will see your brand the same way as well.
Take care to avoid being overly promotional or commercial in your community contributions. These might land short-term traffic gains but will hurt your brand in the long-run.
For example, Bruce Clay of the eponymous marketing agency hosted an AMA (‘Ask Me Anything’) on the /r/bigSEO subreddit, answering questions from readers.
You don’t have to answer questions to be valuable. Even inviting contribution from the community can be helpful, as Ahrefs (a SEO tool) does here:
Essentially, your goal is to be:
On Reddit, some appropriate subreddits for creative agencies would be /r/socialmedia, /r/advertising, /r/copywriting, /r/webmarketing and /r/web_design. Try using a branded account name that clearly identifies you or your agency.
You can also find industry forums by searching for “[your agency focus] + forum”.
Finally, look up some Twitter chats that focus on your agency’s expertise. Participate by sharing valuable content. Use this page to find relevant chats. This is great from a networking perspective as well.
Create Content Targeted at the People You Want to Attract
What’s the easiest way to attract clients from a particular industry?
Easy: create content that explicitly targets them.
This is a little used by wildly effective strategy that can get you in front of the people you want as clients. In-depth, well-designed content shows off:
- Your knowledge of the target industry
- Your creative skills
For example, CODO, an Indianapolis based design agency, wanted to work with craft brewers.
To show brewers that it was passionate about their industry, it created this Craft Beer Branding Guide.
CODO wanted clients from the craft brewing industry, so it created a branding guide specifically targeted towards them.
The guide walked craft brewers through the branding process for a brew. The site as well as the content worked as a showcase for the agency’s capabilities and knowledge.
Similarly, WellnessCreative, an agency targeting the fitness industry, creates a ton of content targeted towards trainers and health professionals.
When your target audience consumes your content, you get an opportunity to "upsell" them your services.
Again, this demonstrates the agency’s expertise, enthusiasm and capabilities.
Try doing this for your agency. Make a list of the kind of clients you want to attract, then create hyper-targeted content related to their industry.
But content has uses beyond getting clients; it is also a powerful community-building tool.
Create a Community Through Content
Content is the heart of any community. If you can consistently create valuable content and give people a platform to discuss it, you’ll find it incredibly easy to build a community.
Content can be in any form - in-depth blog posts, questions & answers, newsletters, and even events. The key is to develop a platform where others with similar interests can participate.
For example, ConversionXL started out as a blog focused on conversion rate optimization. People who were interested in this topic found their way to the blog thanks to its valuable content.
Building a community can lead to more opportunities, such as ConversionXL's transformation from a blog to a live event to an agency.
This is a proven approach to fostering a community - create great content, help people discuss it, and add your contributions.
Marketing your creative agency can be a challenge. With so little to separate your agency from competitors, the strength of your marketing will often impact the strength of your client roster.
Try some of these unconventional strategies to stand out. Embrace side projects, foster a community and develop a marketing hook to differentiate yourself from competitors and attract clients.